While listening to the excellent podcast Digital Planet from the BBC, I heard a horror story about the problems of regulating cyberspace. While just a couple of days ago I sounded rather optimistic about the prospects of regulating online environments, this story lays bare some of the real problems of enforcing some specific practices conducted online.
The story commented on the case of an anonymous worker from a company that is peripherally related to animal testing. His personal details were posted in an American activist website, and since then he has been the subject of constant harassment, abuse, vandalism and death threats. With the UK government’s clamp-down on animal protesters in full force, many illegal activities have moved abroad, particularly online activism. Sites like Bite Back, based in the USA, provide propaganda for the activities of the Animal Liberation Front and other organisations. Some of those sites have been posting the personal address and personal details of all sorts of people. The problem for the targets is the lack of regulation with regards to personal privacy in the United States.
Imagine you were the target of such an attack. What would you do? The answer is: not much. While posting personal details on a website would definitely contravene Data Protection in the UK (and Europe in general), this is not the case in the U.S., where most of these sites are protected by the First Amendment. If there is a criminal offence being committed in the UK, then the Crown Prosecution Service could seek extradition, but I wonder if the American judiciary would be willing to enforce such a request as the opposing values are privacy vs freedom of speech.
Funnily enough (in a perverse way), if we were talking about copyright infringement, the site would remain open only as long as you can say DMCA.